On Modranacht, which is variously celebrated on December 24th or, in northern tradition, a bit earlier, the Three Maternae or Mothers name the newborn Oak King, the Child of Promise. Giving him a name involves divining his destiny for the next half-year, for the waxing year is the time of his reign.
This illustrates the connection in traditional cultures between names and destiny. In our modern cowan 1 culture, we receive names that are little more than noises, but which might reflect sentiment on the part of our parents. Often a favorite aunt or uncle’s name is reproduced in the first or middle name of the newborn child. But the name as used in mainstream society is little more than a legal placeholder, something to fill in the blanks on tax forms and other documents. The bearer of the name almost never feels any responsibility to carry the meaning of the name forward into his or her life. The heathen Udmurts of central Russia ran into conflict with the authorities because their culture dictates a change from the milk-name to the mature name of a growing child. The schools, having already registered the milk-name, insisted on keeping it for the young Udmurts, in effect declaring that they remain toddlers all their lives.
Most of us enter the Craft from mainstream society, and bear cowan names, but the pagan-friendly and pagan-curious often adopt a nickname whose meaning could be described as a personal variation on one who seeks, characterizing in some way the nature of one’s search for meaning in life, or at least how one feels about such a search. My father, by contrast, once said “When I was a young man, I was very concerned to discover some sort of truth; but after a while you just make a living.” If he had been given to reflecting on this decision, his name thereafter might have been “Just makes a living.” But as he opted for living unreflectively, he did not reflect on his name as it pertained to his life path.
In my own case, my pagan-curious nickname is Quicksilver. When I was a child, I remember we broke a thermometer and I watched in fascination all the little silver bubbles of mercury hopping around on the carpet. Like mercury or quicksilver (to avoid using the God’s name), I hop around a lot. I subsequently heard a lot about that in school and later in jobs. “Too many outside interests.” “Needs to focus more,” etc. Well, that is just how I am. But once I dedicated to the Craft, I acquired a focus of sorts, though I still hop around an awful lot.
The cowan name, then, belongs outside the circles of the Craft, and accompanies a radically different path in life from that taken by a seeker of meaning. The Tarot card of The Fool, depicting a jester about to step off a cliff, can be taken as the image of the culmination of a cowan’s life path.
Having found the Craft and having decided to study it in depth, a student enters on a radically different path from that on which the people of mainstream society wander all their lives. The student may elect to dedicate to the Craft, and choose a name representing his or her dedication, and the nature of the commitment being made.
Dedication is a particular span of time during which the dedicant studies the lore and practices of the elementary Craft more intensely than before. Traditionally the period is for ‘a year and a day,’ though this originally meant a solar year, i.e. a lunar year of 364 days plus the Nameless Day added to bring it even with the solar year. In our busy 21st-century lives, however, the period of dedication may be shortened, particularly if the dedicant feels ready for a full lifetime commitment to the Craft. In that case, he or she will request initiation.
When one is initiated, he or she joins an inner circle of mutually-supporting witches working with certain helping spirits whose identity is kept secret from non-initiates. The initiate may retain his or her name of dedication, or else receive or choose a new name, by which he or she is known only to the initiatic circle. This name is used at Esbats with that circle, but never outside it. Its meaning should reflect where the initiate feels he or she is presently, as well as where he or she is going in the Craft, again for the duration of the current incarnation.
Witches believe in reincarnation, and like others who do, it is assumed that a new name will be borne in a future life. But from life to life the witch progresses, as his or her root-soul in the Summerland (also called Tir-na n’og and other names, depending on the tradition followed) grows with the lessons learned in each life. This larger cycle is traversed by a group of souls known variously as a ‘soul-cluster’ or a ‘witch family’. Members of the same witch family may reincarnate together, or some may stay on the Other Side to help guide those who are currently reborn. When we meet someone with whom we feel an instant rapport, and whom we seem to have known for untold ages, it is a sign that we have come into contact with another member of our witch family or soul cluster. Sometimes two people will mistake this for having met their ‘soul mate’, and if the romantic nature of their relation eventually plays out, they may find they are still best friends. On the other hand, members of one’s genetic family may or may not also belong to one’s soul cluster. We may regret not being able to get as close to a brother or sister as we would wish, even though we love them dearly.
When a witch has descended the inner pillar to the marches of the Summerland and received an intimation of his or her root-soul, and perhaps other members of his or her witch family, a sense of where the root-soul stands in relation to its development and eventual transmutation may lead to the choice of an inner name. This inner name is only tentative until the witch is on the Other Side, but it may turn out to be accurate enough. If I receive such an intimation, I may come back to Middle-Earth with a name which reflects where I stand in my career from life to life as a witch. This name is deeper than the initatic one and must never be shared except with the Gods in prayer, or with helping spirits from the Other Side.
There are cycles enclosing cycles, and once a root-soul has fully matured, the witch will go to the Sun and there receive a body of light. 2 Thereafter he or she may materialize temporarily in Middle-Earth for specific purposes, but regular reincarnation will no longer be necessary. The witch will have become an elemental or minor demigod, balanced in all four elemental powers of knowledge, will, daring and stillness, and will assist the Gods in their labors. And then, I suppose, we get a new name.
GRIMASSI, Raven, Italian Witchcraft; The Old Religion of Southern Europe, St. Paul,
MN, Llewellyn Publications, 2000.
NIKHILANANDA, Swami, translator, The Upanishads; a New Translation, in four
volumes, New York, Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center, 1952.